Eastern Traditions of the Fall

The Oriental traditions of Paradise, and of the fall, are less distinct than those of the West, with regard to the leading external facts; but the doctrine itself is more clearly announced, is more broadly recognized as an article of belief, and the influences by which the downfall of man was brought about, are more clearly indicated. The impression which this produces is of greater conformity with the scripture narrative in the eastern than in the western legends; although the former take comparatively small notice of the serpent, the woman, and the fruit. The western legends, in fact, dwell upon the details and incidents, which are generalized in the Oriental systems.

According to the Chinese, man in his original condition was obedient to the heavens; and his state was one of innocence and happiness. There was no disease, no death; he was good and wise by instinct; he was all spirit. But the inordinate thirst of knowledge, according to one author, or, according to others, flattery, or the temptation of the woman, was the ruin of mankind. Man held no more power over himself; lust and passion gained ascendancy over him, and he lost his intellectual pre-eminence. All beasts, and birds, and reptiles, now waged war against him; and as he acquired science, all creatures became his enemies. Note: Memoires Chinoises, vol. i. 107; De Guigues, Chou-king: Diss. Prelim.] Thus, the original state of man is described as being nearly the same as we find it in the Hebrew records; and his downfall is ascribed to the same motives.

The traditions of the Lamaic faith give a length of days to the first of men, which throws the longevity of the Mosaical antediluvians quite into the shade—not less than 60,000 years. They were holy men, invisibly nourished, and  possessing the power of ascending at pleasure to the skies. In an evil hour the earth produced a kind of manna—a honey-sweet substance; a glutton ate of it, and seduced the rest of mankind to follow his example. From that time, man lost his happiness and innocence. His body became gross. His commerce with the skies was past. His days were shortened; and his stature no longer attained its original gigantic proportions. In time, the manna failed, and man resorted by degrees to food more and more gross; and, at last, all virtue fled the world, and wickedness prevailed. Eventually, the spontaneous increase of the earth no longer sufficed, and man began with labor and sorrow to till the ground. Note: Pallas, Travels, i. 334, etc.]

Very similar, in some respects, to this, is the Buddhist doctrine, as held by the Cingalese. After the rising of the world from the waste of waters, some souls, who had ended their lives in heaven, descended upon the earth. They were without parts or passions; and reflecting from themselves sufficient light without the sun or moon, they were much delighted with their new situation. After a time these heavenly creatures became so much inflated with pride, and debased by lust, that they were changed into human beings of both sexes; and their resplendent properties having departed from them, they lived long in darkness, until at last the sun, moon, and stars shone forth. Their food was the sweet clay of the earth; but on account of their avarice in accumulating vast quantities for their pleasure, it was rendered insipid for their punishment. After this, they resorted to other kinds of food, which, one after another, they lost by the same means, their nature still degenerating, and their wickedness increasing, till they were at length driven to till the ground for subsistence. Note: Upham’s Buddhist Tracts, pp. 16, 156; Joinville in Asiatic Researches, vii. 438.]

In the Hindu mythology the references to the fall become even more distinct. The facts narrated uniformly correspond, and the consequences are equally tremendous with those of  the Mosaical account. In this mythology the king of the evil assoors, or demons, is called “the king of the serpents,” of which poisonous reptiles, folded together in horrible contortions, their hell is formed. What is very remarkable is, that the name of the serpent monarch is Naga, and he is the prince of the Nagis or Nacigs, in which Sanskrit appellation we plainly trace the Hebrew Nachash, which is the very word for the particular serpentine tempter, and in general, for all the serpents throughout the Old Testament. Note: Maurice’s Hindustan, ii. 346; Moor’s Hindu Pantheon.]

The testimony of the Vishnu Purana—for a translation of which the public is indebted to Professor Horace Wilson—is still more to the purpose: “The beings who were created by Brahma were, at first, endowed with righteousness and perfect faith; they abode wherever they pleased, unchecked by any impediment; their hearts were free from guile; they were pure, made free from soil by the observance of the sacred institutes. In their sanctified minds Hari dwelt; and they were filled with perfect wisdom, wherewith they contemplated the glory of Vishnu. After a time, that portion of Hari which has been described as one with Kala (‘time’), infused into created beings sin, as yet feeble, though formidable, and passion, and the like. The impediment of the soul’s liberation—the seed of iniquity—arose from darkness and desire. The innate perfectness of human nature was then no more evolved. All the perfections were impaired, and these becoming feeble, sin gained strength, and mortals became subject to pain.”

Even this is somewhat too general; but let us look to the history of Krishna. He was one of the incarnations of the Almighty in human shape. He had a fearful conflict with the great serpent Kali Naga, who had poisoned the waters of the river, and thereby spread death and destruction around. Yet some of the representations seem to exhibit the people as walking very deliberately into the very jaws of the devouring monster. Krishna, casting an eye of divine compassion upon the multitudes of dead which lay before  him, attacked the mighty serpent, which soon twisted its enormous folds around his body; but Krishna took hold of the serpent’s heads, one after another, and set his foot upon them. The monster struggled in vain, and, after expending all his poison, found himself totally overwhelmed. This triumph of Krishna is a favorite subject of Hindu paintings—in whose history the mythologists discover the analogy to Hercules and to Apollo, but altogether overlook, or touch but lightly on, its bearing upon the history of the fall and the promise of a deliverer.

More distinct than all this is the doctrine of the ancient Persians, who seem in this, as in many other points, to have made nearer approaches to the truth than any of the ancient nations. Their doctrine, very briefly stated after the Zenda-vesta, is this—The world itself was created during five successive periods, and during a sixth man himself received his being. After his production, man enjoyed a period of innocence and happiness in an elevated region which the Deity (Ormuzd) had assigned to him. But it was necessary to his existence in this state that he should be “humble of heart, and humbly obey the divine ordinances; pure he must be of thought, pure of word, pure of deed.” And for a time the first pair were thus holy and happy. They said, “It is Ormuzd who hath given us the water, the earth, and the trees, and the stars, and the moon, and the sun, and all things pure.” But at last Ahriman, the evil one, appeared, and beat down their good dispositions; and, under the influence of his glozing lies, they began to ascribe their blessings to him. “Thus Ahriman deceived them, and even to the end will seek to deceive.” Emboldened by this success, Ahriman, the liar, presented himself again, and brought with him fruit, of which they ate; and, in that instant, of a hundred excellences which they possessed, all but one departed from them, and they became subject to misery and death. The legend goes on to state how they went on finding inventions and acquiring arts, but becoming more and more under the influence of the evil one—clearly alluding by this to the  fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Another form of the legend compresses the same leading ideas into the brief myth—That Ahriman, after having dared to visit heaven, descended to the earth, and, approaching the man in the form of a serpent, poisoned him with his venom, so that he died. From that time the world fell into confusion—the enemy of all good appeared everywhere, mixed himself with everything, and sought to do mischief both above and below.

If we put these two legends together, regarding them not as two accounts, but as one differently told, we have an account of the fall remarkably conformable to that of Moses. Of all the old traditions, it is the only one in which the intervention of the devil is distinctly recognized. Other legends have the serpent, but here alone in that serpent the evil one is seen. It is remarkable that the intervention of the woman is not distinctly recognized in any of these eastern traditions, though it is implied in some of them. Does this singular omission arise from the low position which woman occupies in the East, which rendered unpalatable that idea of woman’s relation to man in paradise, which the fact of man’s yielding to her temptation would suggest? In the account last noticed, the fact, though not expressed, is implied in the additional statement, that, upon the fall, discord arose between the man and the woman, so that they lived apart for fifty years.